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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Jeff Ubben grew up in a suburb of Chicago and cites walking through milkweed near the train tracks with his butterfly net—“catching butterflies and bringing them home to show my mom”—as his earliest memory of nature. And although he devoured issues of Ranger Rick magazine as a kid, and later even applied for a job at a local veterinarian’s office, he considers himself a conservation latecomer.
He’s definitely making up for lost time.
“I give my wife, Laurie, all the credit for getting us involved with WWF,” Ubben says. “I was head down, working. But my wife is a huge animal welfare activist, and it was her idea to reach out [to WWF] almost a decade ago to learn more about their work around stopping the trade in elephant ivory.” The Ubbens have been active with WWF ever since, supporting work around wildlife conservation and climate change strategy.
For much of his decades-long career in finance, Ubben was a shareholder activist—someone whose interest in a company’s operations or success is primarily financial. However, after being bitten by the conservation bug, he now considers himself a stakeholder activist. What’s the difference?
“As a shareholder activist, my singular focus in the boardroom is on one constituent—the shareholder—and that wasn’t working for me anymore,” Ubben says. “There were these other imperatives like climate change and social inequities that businesses had played a role in causing and therefore, I felt, needed to play a role in addressing.”
As a stakeholder activist, Ubben considers it his mission to prove that long-term investments driving environmental and social goals are just as important as maximizing profit. It’s been his experience that most CEOs now understand and embrace the importance of aligning their business practices with sustainability values—both for the health of the planet and for the health of their company. But sometimes the investors he works with “need to be inspired to think longer term, and bigger, about the role that capitalism can play for the greater good.” And that’s where he comes in.
“The biggest impact I can have is to catalyze change in big companies to do less harm,” says Ubben. “We all have these basic needs—food, shelter, energy—all of which cost money. At the forefront of my mind is always the question, how do we serve these needs while also driving improved planetary health?”
Ubben says that one of the things he loves most about working with WWF is the organization’s willingness to “engage with companies and think through the way that these two systems, ecosystems and business systems, can work together.” And despite the overwhelming environmental challenges facing the world today—from climate change to species decline to resource scarcity—Ubben can’t help but feel hopeful about the potential for the private sector to join forces with organizations like WWF to drive change.
“Companies are having conversations around these issues that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago,” he says. “And we need their involvement, because the truth is that philanthropy alone won’t heal the planet. We also need the big balance sheets and the know-how that companies bring to the table.”